Federation Under US Influence In Iraq And Bosnia-Herzegovina – OpEd


In neither Bosnia nor Iraq did the Americans anticipate that fragmentation and mutual communal suspicion would trump the power and political engineering of soldiers, diplomats, and the multitude of Western NGOs.

By David B. Kanin

By definition, federations are amalgamations of parts that do not naturally form a whole.  Political units designed around versions of this political form need to agree on or construct some common factor or goal strong enough to keep them together.   Among other possibilities, this glue can involve material resources – assuming the parties can agree on how to share the wealth – ideological, ethnic, or religious commonalities, or fear of a common adversary.

In the early United States – which initially rejected a center strong enough to be considered federal – financial chaos and other problems motivated a new constitution increasing the authority of a government incapable of doing much of anything.  No matter its “We the People” slogan, the contemporary Tea Party is the political descendent of those who opposed  that Constitution, the so-called anti-Federalists suspicious of central power and determined to protect local interests.  These zealots have reopened the debate of 1788 and are capable of doing real damage to American power and cohesiveness.

Dynastic monarchy once provided an alternative to political Federation.  From at least Joseph II on, partisans of Imperial ideology in central and Eastern Europe argued that the dynasty provided a unifying symbol essential to the prevention of violent conflict over resources and real estate.  This discussion accelerated with the development of competing nationalisms in what became “Austria-Hungary.”  It is easy to forget that this argument had real appeal until the late stages of World War I, and that it provided a basis for Habsburg nostalgia after 1918.  For a moment in 1989, a few people even proposed that Otto von Habsburg become King of Hungary.  Vestiges of monarchical glue exist in the United Kingdom and Spain; Scots, Catalans, and others will decide whether these amalgams are worth holding together.

Tito-nostalgia has some of the same characteristics as monarchical ideology.  The constructed memory of how the Great Man was able to balance the various forces in his Yugoslavia – at a real price in freedom and other things, of course – attracts some who disparage the opacity and instability of the post-1991 Balkans and filter out less positive memories of the Communist era.  There is much less of this sort of feeling in the Middle East regarding the Ottoman Empire (despite Turkish efforts to repackage imperial memories there and in the Balkans), but the Ottoman existence until Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt as an Islamic, non-Western power does create a positive image among Muslims in the process of disgorging Western influence and debating among themselves how to structure future political systems and social structures.

Federation as low common denominator

The US did not set out to create federations when it took over Bosnia’s development and invaded Iraq.  In the early stages of the Bosnian conflict, some in Washington envisioned the term “Bosnjak” as a unifying, centralizing civic identifier (along with a flag featuring a Valois, Christian fleur-de-lis symbol), rather than just a marker of the notional country’s plurality community.  The failure of this attempt at forced unity gave way to the February 1994 Washington Agreement that ended Bosnjak-Croat fighting and cobbled together a bi-communal Federation, which was then subsumed within the Dayton Agreement a year and a half later.  The upshot was a unitary Republika Srpska able to function more effectively than either the rickety Bosnjak-Croat entity or the overall Bosnian federal patchwork.

In its attack on Iraq, Washington confidently brought with its troops an ideology of democracy that was to serve as a beacon shedding light not only in Baghdad but throughout the Arab world (some associated with the invasion later credited Bush, Jr.-era rhetoric as the inspiration for the Arab upheavals that began last year).  In neither Bosnia nor Iraq did the Americans anticipate that fragmentation and mutual communal suspicion would trump the power and political engineering of soldiers, diplomats, and the multitude of Western NGOs.

As initially naïve expectations withered, planners and constitution drafters in Washington found themselves with no choice but to craft federal approaches that would retain the fiction that these newly Americanized places would follow a US political script.  The Dayton agreement between Milosevic and the Americans scuppered Western promises of support for a cohesive Bosnian state.  It retains its bitter taste for a Bosnjak plurality forced to accept that its American patrons were unwilling and unable to force the creation of something more cohesive.  Sunni and especially Kurdish rejection of an Iraq run by its Shi’a majority was only one of the problems apparently unforeseen by the invaders of 2003, and so those Americans who directed the drafting of the new Iraqi constitution fell back to a similar federal default.

Bosnia remains the weaker of the two states.  Its only unifying feature is the hope of joining a European Union not only reluctant to admit it but so far incapable of guaranteeing its own material functionality.  No matter the politically correct rhetoric of Social Democrats and others, leaders of the country’s three major communal components continue to have decisively divergent goals – Bosnjak parties want a stronger state they can dominate, Serb politicians a weaker state incapable of interfering with their patronal and political hegemony, and Croats a separate entity designed to protect themselves from the other two.  Calls especially from young, urban Bosnians for multiethnic integration so far reflect those individuals’ frustrations rather than any sort of viable political or social movement.

Iraq, unlike, Bosnia, has a communal majority.  Despite its having been cobbled together out of three Ottoman administrative zones (Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra), the idea of a unified “Iraq” also has greater provenance than the artificially designated Bosnia.  Nevertheless, the Shi’a face overlapping divisions of party, different opinions of a prime minister with an authoritarian bent, contending loyalties to various religious figures (and differences over the role of religion in society), and the question of relations between Shi’a, Arab Iraq and Shi’a, Persian Iran.

One of the many events unanticipated by US planners was that their invasion undermined the border roughly established in the seventeenth century during wars between Ottomans and Safavids – Saddam Hussein had failed to enlarge his authority beyond this border when he attacked Iran in 1980.  The US intervention has re-opened this old contest, enabling greater Iranian influence in the Land of the Two Rivers than has been the case for centuries.

More than in Bosnia, any simple breakdown of Iraq’s politics by ethnic or religious divider misses many other elements of politics and social interaction.  Nevertheless, some among the former Sunni ruling minority (which was more comfortable with the outside Hashemite dynasty imposed after World War I as well as with the Tikriti mafia under Saddam Hussein) still appear to believe they are the natural rulers of the place.  The disgruntled among the Sunnis are reduced to a choice between exploiting Shi’a divisions and embracing al-Qa’ida (or both).   Sunni patronage bosses likely will be able to provide sustenance for some tribes or other groups, but overall the status of this 20 percent or so of the population appears unlikely to improve much.

The Kurdish component of the Iraqi mosaic is different from any group in Bosnia – its growing economic clout is somewhat reminiscent of that of Serbs in Vojvodina.  The Kurds famously form the largest community without their own state; the US-midwifed creation of the Kurdish regional government and promulgation of article 140 of Iraq’s constitution – which guarantees the Kurds at least a large piece of profits from oil in their region – ensure that Iraq can be no more than a loose amalgamation.

The fact the Kurds provide the country’s president is insignificant; what matters more is the reorientation of Iraq Kurdish notables toward Turkey.  Making a deal with Ankara attracts more Kurdish attention than anything going on between Kurds and Arabs in Baghdad.  Indications Turkey might be willing to pay the Kurds directly for oil moving to or through Turkey through a pipeline built from Kurdistan to Ceyhan – without necessarily acting through the Baghdad government – may well have a greater impact on future events than political discussions between Iraqi Kurds and other Iraqis.  The outline of a deal may be taking shape under which Kurdish regional authorities agree to tolerate wider Turkish air and ground military incursions to destroy Turkish Kurdish insurgents operating in northern Iraq, in exchange for which Turkey will tolerate an Iraqi Kurdistan politically autonomous and economically independent of Baghdad.

This marks perhaps the major distinction between the contexts in which the Bosnian and Iraqi federations operate.  Despite their often less than impressive management of the post-Yugoslav Balkans, the US retains influence in southeastern Europe (as, to an extent, does the EU).  Developments in Iraq since 2003 and more spectacular tectonics in the Arab Middle East since early 2011 (events not captured by the simple term “Arab Spring”) demonstrate that whatever clout the former colonial rulers and their American successors once had in that area is declining precipitously.

This leaves room for Turkey and Iran to pursue their interests in the Middle East more effectively than, say, Russia can in the Balkans.  Bosnian and other Balkan actors have learned how to manipulate succeeding generations of Western overseers and diplomats, but counterparts in the Middle East increasingly can ignore them.  One question is how soon the serial failures of viceroys to force Balkan compliance with various demands will lead a critical mass of decision makers to come to conclusions about the waning of Western power similar to those already reached by many in the Middle East.

A few words on Afghanistan may be appropriate to close the analytical loop.  The complicated relationships between the Pashtun plurality and other communities, among tribes and between regions distinguish this object of American military adventure from its Iraqi or Bosnian counterparts.  Despite efforts build on traditional jirgas to promote local and regional governance, Afghanistan is not a federation in the sense of the other two American-built states.   Rather, it remains multi-leveled arrangement of various family and tribal relationships in which many agreements are based on honor and are recognized by all sides to last only as long as all conditions that led to their being struck remain as they were when negotiations ended.

The tradition since Ahmed Shah Durrani established a monarchy that served more as primus inter pares than as a unifying or mediating royal symbol – the period of Abdur Rahman’s rule in the late 19th century was an exception.   The Karzai presidency follows in that pattern, no matter the ruling family’s efforts to create patronal power in Kandahar and elsewhere.  This system of a relatively weak ruler as a component of a traditional, multi-layered bargaining process has ensured that a less than powerful center does not (as in Bosnia’s case) guarantee dysfunction.  The American error in Afghanistan was to permit the narrow goal of a post-9/11 attack on the Taliban to get at al-Qa’ida to enlarge into another costly and futile effort at Western-style nation-building.

The United States finds itself hampered by the legacy of post-Cold War interventions bolstered more by breathless rhetoric than strategic planning.  Its moment of hegemonic celebration after 1989 led Washington to believe its global footprint was indispensable, decisive, and wise.  Events have undercut both this self-confidence and the notion that American power can overawe others’ religious, political, and strategic priorities.

Going forward, forging more effective policies will depend on whether US decision makers can overcome the instinct to insist on America’s mythical superiority and learn – finally – to become a real partner with a variety of counterparts.   This would require strategic triage designed to decide where Washington should and should not press its residual leadership.  It also would depend on whether the US is capable of accepting that the diffusion of global power and shifting relationships among different political, social, economic, and religious-ideological systems preclude belief that there exists a single, post-1815-like “International Community.”

The various federal or otherwise multi-layered systems existing alongside more centralized states cannot be forced into any single model of development or conflict management.  Differences in the way political and patronal notables organize their power and resource distribution networks greatly limit the usefulness of Western political science models or NGO-inspired templates.   Future progress toward – or away from – stability, prosperity, and the various values some voices insist are universal are likely to vary widely from place to place.  These states also are unlikely to follow scripts promoted by Western governments, press commentary, social networks, or such counter-cultural (but still inspired by Western secular rituals) phenomena as the “Occupy” movement or other highly publicized political theater.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).


TransConflict was established in response to the challenges facing intra- and inter-ethnic relations in the Western Balkans. It is TransConflict’s assertion that the successful transformation of conflict requires a multi-dimensional approach that engages with and aims at transforming the very interests, relationships, discourses and structures that underpin and fuel outbreaks of low- and high-intensity violence.

One thought on “Federation Under US Influence In Iraq And Bosnia-Herzegovina – OpEd

  • July 28, 2012 at 2:39 am

    A very thoughtful and thought-provoking article. Couple of additional ideas re the penultimate paragraph: at the macro level, seems to me another way of saying this is that we have lost sight of our real foreign policy interests – we’ve defined them too generally, resulting in a disconnect between policy and the resources available/required to implement it. Equally important, hubris has brought us to espouse centralized models for post-conflict societies (more convenient for the International Community) which would be better served, as we are, by a Federal system that takes into account the realities on the ground. Cheers,


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